A True Story
A while back, I was watching a lecture from a holy man who lived in Gangotri—high in the Himalayas near the headwaters of the Ganges River.
While he was giving this very casual discourse, he was also giving himself an oil massage, a daily practice in India called abhyanga. It is a common sight to see locals bathe in rivers and give themselves oil massages in India, but how he was giving himself this massage really surprised me.
As he was talking, he was massaging his legs, knees, and thighs with oil, but what struck me was the way he was doing it. Instead of simply applying the oil and mindlessly going through the motions, he seemed to be loving his skin and fully aware of each and every stroke. Fascinatingly, he was able to simultaneously lecture and articulate his thoughts while he attentively applied oil to his skin.
His care and attention to his leg massage were so affectionate that if he wasn’t a lifelong celibate monk, I would have wondered about him! Each stroke was given so much awareness, as though he were massaging a newborn baby. The skin of his legs glowed like those of a 20-year-old, yet he was pushing 90…
While I watched this, I realized that there is more to an Ayurvedic daily oil massage than just the benefit of the oil. Everything he did—how he spoke, how he moved, the time he took to think before he spoke—he did with an incredible sense of awareness that is totally foreign to how we interact in the West.
Is it possible that after so many years of attentively massaging his skin, a heightened level of awareness developed which cultivated better health and more conscious behavior?
The Science of a Loving Touch
The more I study Ayurveda, the more I am convinced that if a culture has been doing something for thousands of years and they are still practicing it, there must be something to it. In India today, after a minimum of 3000 years, it is still a practice to give yourself a daily oil massage. Let’s look at the modern science behind this ancient practice.
Research on massaging, hugging and even touching with awareness has shown that it increases the production of oxytocin—a naturally-secreted hormone in the body that supports optimal levels of physical health and longevity, as well as love, kindness, empathy, and bonding. Being touched sends a powerful message to the brain that, “Everything is okay.” Perhaps this was ingrained during the first few years of life, when a mother’s touch reassured, calmed, and soothed the pain or fear in us as children.
Research has shown that without loving relationships, even if all of our other basic needs are being met, humans do not flourish. (1)
This may be the most important message we derive from centenarian communities (those who live past the age of 100). They have strong social bonds, positive attitudes, they feel needed in their communities, and they enjoy loving relations. All of these things boost oxytocin, which is linked not only to happiness but good health and longevity as well. (2)
Oxytocin is so powerful that it can reinforce a body of trust and safety. In one study, when married men were given a nasal injection of oxytocin, they were found to be uncomfortable when a flirtatious female approached them. The oxytocin reinforced the bond of marriage.
Another group of unmarried men that were approached by a flirtatious female were found to be open to the flirting. (3) Relatedly, another study found that oxytocin may contribute to enhancing men’s perception of their partner’s attractiveness compared with other women, thus strengthening their monogamous romantic bond with their partner. (4)
Oxytocin is the trust and bonding hormone secreted by the mother, baby, and even dad during childbirth, and connects the family for life. (5) Oxytocin is produced when you give, love, bond, touch, and care for others. Oxytocin is a natural rejuvenative, re-building hormone which means, unlike dopamine, the more of it you produce, the more of it you make.
Oxytocin is released in response to the skin sending messages of safety and security to the brain as a result of touch, including massage, low-intensity stimulation of the skin, and warm temperature. (6,7) Massage helps the body cope with stress in a variety of ways. Massage has been found to increase oxytocin and decrease stress hormones, such as adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), nitric oxide (NO), and beta-endorphin (BE). (8) Of course, nitric oxide naturally helps the body protect against cardiovascular disease—it helps lower our blood pressure and widens arteries for increased blood flow. (9)
In another study published in the peer-reviewed journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 95 subjects had their blood levels evaluated for various amounts of chemicals before and after a 15-minute massage.
- Oxytocin levels increased by 17% for the group that received massage.
- The control group who just rested showed a 9% decrease in oxytocin.
- ACTH (adrenocorticotropin)—which increases with stress—increased by 30% for the group who rested without receiving massage.
- Interestingly, ACTH decreased by 20% for those who were in the massage group. (8)
One of the ways that oxytocin works is by altering the microbiology of the skin during the massage. A loving touch will increase oxytocin which, in turn, alters the microbes in a way that supports measurable health gains.
To measure the microbial impact of oxytocin, in one study, subjects were given probiotics and their oxytocin levels increased. The increase of oxytocin showed quantifiable changes in numerous longevity markers, such as skin and hair quality, general “glow of health,” immune and hormonal balance, enhanced fitness and reproductive factors, the capacity for skin wound healing, and it was also shown to impact attitude and social behavior. (10,11) Interestingly, when exposed to just facial expressions of fear and anger, the production of oxytocin and the activation of the oxytocin gene was significantly reduced. Here, we see how a perceived emotion can epigenetically alter gene expression and hormone production. (8-13,16)
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The Outer Skin’s Response to Massage Oil
Everywhere you touch your body, there are nerve endings. The sensory nerves on the skin are exposed to constant tactile, circadian, microbial, emotional, and environmental stressors 24/7. In fact, just one arm has over a million nerve endings that you can calm by applying oil. (14)
Years ago, when I used to work with Deepak Chopra, I was in a different city every weekend for weeks, lecturing and teaching with Deepak. I am quite sure I crossed way too many time zones for my poor circadian clock to handle.
I remember getting into a certain habit out of pure survival! As soon as I would arrive at our new destination, I would take a shower and give myself an oil massage. The results were astounding. I could feel my entire body settle down and relax, and instantly stop buzzing from the travel.
Lifestyle stress and jet lag mask the genes in the body from hearing the circadian rhythms. I call this “gene noise.” This can leave all the circadian clocks, many of which are on the skin and senses, unable to sync up with light/dark cycles and regulate normal function.
With just one oil massage, you can calm the entire nervous system, gently applying oil to over 20,000,000 sensory nerve receptors on the skin—in just a couple of minutes! (14)
An oil massage is said to calm vata, to calm the nervous system. Now, we have modern science to show that when you put oil on your skin with some attention, awareness and love, the body also produces oxytocin. (8)
Microbes that are responsive to the oxytocin are concentrated on healthy, moist skin (14), suggesting that a regular practice of oiling the skin would provide nutrients for more diverse microbes and, thus, a healthier skin microbiome. (16)
When the skin becomes dry, stressed, jet-lagged, or chemically altered with lotions and creams, the environment for a healthy skin microbiome and cellular awareness can become compromised. (17) A certain species of microbes—and perhaps all microbes that are part of the normal skin flora—feed on sebum (oil) secreted by the skin. The ancient practice of daily oil massage supports the health of the skin in ways we are just beginning to understand. (8,18)
Applying oils to your skin as part of regular massage therapy not only reinforces your all-important skin barrier but also:
- Creates a nurturing environment for your microbes.
- Balances vata and the nervous system.
- Soothes the 20 million sensory nerves on the body.
- Increases the production of oxytocin, the hormone associated with love, optimal health, and bonding.
- Proliferates beneficial microbes that support mood, mental, and physical health. Oil massage has been shown to support a healthier skin microbiome. (14,16) Massage also has an effect on the emotional and mood-related components of being more conscious. Massage boosts our oxytocin levels (8), and oxytocin levels support our mood. (11)
Let’s Not Forget the Inner Skin
As the outer skin wraps into the mouth and through the oral cavity, respiratory system, digestive tract, and gut, Ayurveda also has practices for sharing the love with our inner skin.
One of these tried-and-true ancient practices is oil pulling, a time-honored Ayurvedic method for cleaning the mouth that involves swishing oil (gargling), preferably sesame and/or coconut oil, inside the mouth for 10-20 minutes on an empty stomach as part of a regular dental hygiene routine.
This ancient practice has been found to create a saponification effect that deters plaque formation and the presence of a potentially damaging bacteria called Streptococcus mutans, plus it supports healthy gum tissue and fresh breath.
Perhaps the most fascinating information about this practice came to light when a study was performed where enzymes from the mouth were mixed with coconut oil. When the coconut oil was enzyme-modified in this way, its positive effects were significantly boosted. (19-23)
Brushing the teeth with oil is OK, but somehow, they knew thousands of years ago that if you swish it around in the mouth for 10-20 minutes, the benefits of the coconut oil would be greatly increased.
Another Ayurvedic practice to care for the inner skin is through tongue scraping, which is the scraping of the tongue’s surface with a simple scraping device. This ancient practice is also backed by a handful of studies.
Tongue scraping boosts digestive enzymes, decreases undesirable bacterial load, decreases volatile sulphur compounds (VSCs) that contribute to bad breath, and decreases Streptococcus mutans, which causes cavities. (23-27) According to Ayurveda, toxins (ama) collect on the back of the tongue that could cause obstructions in respiration and foul smell. (28)
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While the sense of touch may offer profound benefits to reducing stress, balancing emotions, creating a healthier skin microbiome, and the epigenetic impact that our thoughts, desires, and behaviors have on the way our genes are expressed, the other four senses pack an equally powerful punch.
We’ll continue our journey through the senses of taste, smell, sight, and hearing in forthcoming articles.